Inspiration

Little did I know

I named this post after my blog on purpose. I’d like to do a little retrospective of 2014, the year I began this blog. It will also be a year to remember for many, many other reasons, some of which I’m hoping to share with you on this post. So, here we go.

Little did I know that I would come to find blogging as an inspiring means of expression. I began blogging in January 2014, something which I had been meaning to do for quite a while, but which had always felt like it was not meant for me. What ever would I have to say that other people would even be interested in reading? So it turns out that, hey, some people do. And that’s great. So many inspiring conversations have taken place in this little domain of my own, my digital home.

Little did I know that I would have grown a professional (and personal!) learning network on Twitter. Even though I had joined Twitter in 2009, it was only in 2014 that something clicked and it just felt like the right time to dive in the Twitterverse. And boy am I glad I did. Twitter has enabled me to connect to so many bright, interesting people from all around the globe. I have learned so much from these connections, each of them a whole universe of learning just waiting to happen.

Little did I know that I would find my tribe online. And so I did when I joined Dave Cormier’s Rhizomatic Learning – a.k.a. #rhizo14 – midway. I was the crazy Brazilian who seemed to crash some cool folks’ party, but ended up being an exotic addition to the community/curriculum. It was in #rhizo14 that I made my first Egyptian friend, who would later invite me to join her and other fellow educators to be a part of EdContexts, another cool community of scholars looking to voice Educators from the global south. Also in #rhizo14, I made an Anglo-French friend, a poet, a fellow EFL teacher as myself, who invited me to join the #Clavier Community. Seedlings that are still shooting forth, full of promise and possibility.

Little did I know that I would find so much inspiration in Connected Courses. I would dive in every now and then, and I would always resurface with something new. I learned about Edupunk, for one. I listened to some very bright minds talk about the future of Education. I spent weeks on end reflecting about my why. That was about the time when the seeds of all my messy learning began yielding fruit in my f2f life. A couple of new ideas to foster some sense of community among teachers and among my own group of admins.

My 2014 best books: Drive by Daniel H. Pink and Now You See It by Cathy N. Davidson

My 2014 most inspirirational blog posts: Breaking the Cycle of Oppression by Maha Bali and The Art of Slowing Down Learning by Tania Sheko

My 2014 must-watch videos: the Edupunk Battle Royale (all five parts) by Educoz with Jim Groom and Gardner Campbell and Why we need a “Why”? by Mike Wesch in Connected Courses

My 2014 must-watch TED talks: The Danger of a Single Story by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and #OurVoice by George Couros

My 2014 women that rock (bright & beautiful!): Bonnie Stewart, Carla Arena, Maha Bali and Tanya Lau

My 2014 men that rock: Simon Ensor, Keith Hamon, Shyam Sharma and Terry Elliot

 To all the people who made this year memorable, thank you.

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Reflections on Context

I teach English as a foreign language to Brazilian upper-middle/middle class teenagers aged 14 to 17. All of them are at that stage of their educational trajectories where they are being primed for academic life in university. A vast majority of them go to renowned private high schools whose core goal rests in getting their students into the best universities and colleges in the country. That means that these kids are being prepared for competition, especially those who are aiming at prestigious careers, such as Medicine or Law, to name a few.

Pedagogically speaking, these kids’regular schools are pretty conservative. Students are grouped in large numbers (30 to 40 students) and classses are delivered lecture-style, with the teacher being the expert in charge of passing on the knowledge necessary for these kids to make it to the next big thing in their lives – college and the prospect of a promising professional life, which will provide the means for ensuring a comfortable life, much like the one they already have with their parents. Another contextual aspect particular to our city (Brasília, the capital city of Brazil) is that a career in public service is also among many of these kids professional future prospects. Being able to pass a public examination for a prestigious career in Congress, for example, means high salaries and life-long professional stability. On top of that, many of these kids parents are civil servants themselves, naturally being role models for their kids.

It’s a culture of competition the one in which our teenage students are born and raised. High-stakes tests are the gateways to a prosperous future, and the gatekeepers are the schools and teachers who make getting as many of their youth as possible inside a good university their highest priority. Schools actually use college entrance exam rankings for the purpose of advertisement. They are highly competitive and lucrative enterprises. It makes perfect sense that these schools prepare their students to do well on tests. After all, we live in an assessment-driven culture. Students’ performances are measured and primed for passing tests, and passing tests equals successful professional future. It is common for these high schoolers to spend their Saturdays taking tests at school and spending their whole week, mornings and afternoons, in school, both attending their regular classes and engaging in academic activities, such as writing workshops, where they practice writing academic essays in a product-oriented approach.

These are only some aspects of the cultural fabric of which we, EFL teachers, are also a part. It is our goal to teach these kids English, the language that will open even more doors to a prosperous future. Any job or career worth pursuing nowadays requires individuals who have very high levels of proficiency in English. These kids’ regular schools fail at teaching the language itself, since their goal is to prepare them to pass a test about the language, something which they can do without being able to speak or write fluently in English. That’s where we come in. Our goal is to teach these kids the language itself, and not only about the language. Our classes are taught in English, and we adopt a no-Portuguese policy in the classroom. We adopt communicative methodologies, aiming at developing students’proficiency in English in all four skills, understanding (reading and listening) and producing (writing and speaking) the language fluently and accurately. A majority of our students start their English studies with us as little kids, staying with us until teenagehood, when they will have reached upper-intermediate to advanced levels of English proficiency. By the time they reach these high levels of English proficiency, most of them will have been studying with us for about 6 to 7 years.

The schooling experience of most of the teenagers that I have in my upper-intermediate and advanced level English classes is a very traditional, teacher-centered, high-stakes-test driven experience on a daily basis, as I have briefly described above. It’s a grinding routine in which they wake up very early, have classes the entire morning, have lunch (many times at school) and come over to our institute for their twice-a-week English lessons. Their classroom experience with us is different from their experience in their regular schools in some aspects. Our classes are smaller, with about 18 students in each group. The classrooms themselves are smaller and we adopt a U-shaped seating arrangement of desks. As I’ve mentioned before, we adopt communicative methodologies. Our teachers are trained to facilitate classes that are student-centered and dynamic, fostering plenty of genuine communication. We adopt course books that are the core of these classes, though teachers are encouraged to make the necessary adaptations to course books in order to address their students needs. Group work and pair work dynamics are widely adopted and are an important element in the communicative dynamics implemented in our classes.

Still, my teenage students are tired, and understandably so, given their high school routines. And even though their schooling experience with us bears many differences from their regular schooling, written tests, essays and grades are also important components of our courses. They need to do homework, write paragraphs and essays, and take tests on grammar and vocabulary, as well as reading and listening comprehension. I have often felt that my classes might be coming across as more of the same for my teenagers, despite all my efforts to engage them in energizing discussions and collaborative dynamics with their peers. I mean, these kids have been our students for nearly a decade. It’s as if they have already been intensely exposed to our repertoire of communicative dynamics and activities, no matter how much we personalize and adapt and revamp what goes on in the classroom.

I’m thinking of ways to rethink their engagement. I’m thinking, and looking around, and getting acquainted with other pedagogic practices. Lately something has caught my attention – project based learning. I have been really curious about it and on a quest for learning more about what it is, and how to implement it. I want to write more about it soon, but for now, I will let these reflections on my context sit in my mind a while longer.

How to raise a happy child

Friday morning, Julia and I wake up on a sunny yet chilly day, since it’s winter time down here. We begin going about our business, me making coffee and Julia drawing on her green rubber play mat. We’re listening to some delightfully inspiring music by my new favorite band. I finished doing the little bit of dishes which had been left dirty from the day before. I got my cup of coffee ready. I turn around to observe what Julia was doing. I grabbed my phone and began taking pictures. She was busily playing with some colored patches of fabric from a toy she has, spreading them out, piling them up, folding them up into one single colorful roll of cloth, and starting all over again. At that instant, I heightened my senses to observe the ambiance in which this was happening. There was beautiful music playing, mom taking coffee, and no TV background noise. Julia was experimenting with free play, letting her imagination fly. I thought to myself how wonderful it is to allow free play to happen.

As I was taking some more pictures of her, I realized that there might be a Make on the make. I decided to put together a Flipagram, starting out with those photos of that Friday morning, and using a whole bunch of other photos I had in my camera roll, something I’d been meaning to do since I stumbled upon Flipagram. So as Julia played freely with her little unusual toys, I played with mine, my Iphone. I wasn’t sure what the name of that Make might be. I waited until it was ready to decide, like I so often do with my blog posts. I chose a beautiful song by brazilian singer/songwriter Caetano Veloso to be the soundtrack of my Make. It suited it perfectly.

Once I was finished, I watched it a couple of times, and a few times more. I felt a warmth in my heart and soul. I showed it to Julia. She asked to watch it again and again. Only then did I realize that this little Make of ours, Julia’s and mine, was a snapshot of our lives, mother and daughter, living together, finding happiness together every day in the little things, moment by moment. I felt somewhat proud of myself as a mom. Kind of like I was actually succeeding at propitiating the elements of a happy childhood to my beloved little girl. That’s how the title of my Make and this blog post came to be. It is not my intention, though, to sound as if we don’t have bad days, or face difficulties. Parenting is no easy thing. Yet, it is mornings like that one that may give us a real measure of how truly happy we are.

The following poster goes together with the Flipagram. I dedicate this Make / post to my beloved daughter, Julia, who makes me a better person every single day.

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